On Sunday the overwhelmingly Catholic island of Guam prayed for peace amid a military standoff that threatens its very existence.
North Korea had threatened to attack the US territory, prompting President Donald Trump to warn the regime of Kim Jong-un to expect “fire and fury like the world has never seen”.
North Korea’s threat is serious: it has been testing intercontinental ballistic missiles with the ability to reach the US mainland. According to some reports it has also successfully miniaturised a nuclear warhead to mount on those missiles.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the issue of nuclear war has largely disappeared from the public consciousness, but is now once again a major concern which gives a new relevance to the Church’s teaching on nuclear weapons, their use and deployment, and the history of intra-Catholic debate on the subject.
Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes is clear in condemning all acts of war that indiscriminately kill civilians, as nuclear war does. “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation,” the document says.
But this raises questions: could nuclear weapons ever be justified if they were used against purely military targets? And is it permissible to maintain them as a deterrent?
One senior clergyman who thought so was the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Basil Hume, who reluctantly supported maintaining a nuclear deterrent, arguing that it had preserved an “unpeaceful peace in an uneasy and unjust world”. But he emphasised that the deterrent could never be used against civilian targets, referring back to Gaudium et Spes.
Deterrent weapons can be morally justified, the cardinal argued, so long as a distinction was made between military and civilian centres, and possession of the weapons did not lead to an arms race.
In a piece published in The Times in 1983, Cardinal Hume set out the moral dilemma. “On the one hand, we have a grave obligation to prevent nuclear war from ever occurring. On the other hand, the state has the right and duty of legitimate self-defence, thus ensuring for its citizens key values of justice, freedom and independence.
“There is a tension, then, between the moral imperative not to use such weapons and the policy of nuclear deterrence, with all its declared willingness to use them if attacked.”
His view was by no means universal among his fellow clergy, however. One priest who took a strong line against nuclear weapons in all circumstances was Fr Edward Holloway, a founder of the Faith Movement.
In a 1983 pamphlet, Fr Holloway appealed for the Church to “solemnly proclaim” that the use and possession of nuclear weapons could never be justified under any circumstance.
“Not even the risk of genocide by an enemy will justify a war which puts at risk the whole planet and the genetic health of humankind everywhere,” he argued. Although he recognised that unilateral disarmament could be a huge risk, he nonetheless argued that “if the West really were Christian in faith and culture, then it should accept the risks of economic and social crucifixion and really and truly disarm.”
The threat posed by nuclear weapons was so grave, he wrote, that the Church must definitively condemn them. “The bishops … and the see of Rome should proclaim the intrinsic immorality of modern scientific war waged for any cause whatever.” Although such a declaration “could crucify the Church herself” if she was ignored, it “could also be the principle of a new resurrection, a new conversion of heart, a new understanding of who Man is and could usher a new and a most fruitful wave of worldwide conversion to Christ.”
Pope Francis seems to hold a similar view. In a message read to a UN gathering in Vienna in 2014, he said: “Nuclear deterrence and the threat of mutually assured destruction cannot be the basis for an ethic of fraternity and peaceful coexistence among peoples and states.” Indeed, the Holy See said in a submission to the United Nations: “Nuclear deterrence works less as a stabilising force and more as an incentive for countries to break out of the non-proliferation regime.”
The nuclear question will never go away, not least since technology cannot be uninvented. Mankind has the ability to wipe itself out several times over, and the Church is one of the few institutions which could really challenge world leaders to think twice.